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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Don't Count On It: the fallacy of universal law

Isaiah 55:1-9
In his work, “Cat’s Cradle,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “In this world, you get what you pay for.” My guess is that even if you’d never read anything by Vonnegut, you’ve probably heard those words before. It’s the kind of statement that most of us in this room have likely embraced our entire lives.
Then again, there is a law in physics called the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that, “You can’t get something from nothing.” Whether or not you are into physics, you’ve probably heard that statement or it’s cousin, “you can’t get something for nothing” before, too.
Like other so-called universal laws like “what goes up must come down,” or “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” these laws have been proven over time and by experience. So, let’s face it, they just make sense to us. They perfectly express conventional wisdom bred into most human beings from a very early age.
Yet our first lesson this morning would seem to indicate that by God’s reasoning, you can get something for nothing. God’s economic theory is totally foreign to us. It offers a promise we are not quite sure we can buy – no pun intended.
The fundamental wisdom human beings seem wired to operate under, is expressed in many statements like the ones above, and we see the logic in them, right? But God counters these with statements from the Isaiah text this morning:
You that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.
For most Americans, those former statements underscore and support basic laws of the economy of scarcity that guide our worldview and many of our actions.
They drive our fears and insecurities.
They underlie many of our relationships and interactions.
What that means is that we live with a fundamental philosophy that everything in our world comes in finite quantity: money, food, housing, land, and oil, for instance. There are other, less tangible things that we deem important for life, and these have limited supply as well: power, love, affection, time, and favor.
These truths abide as the foundation of everything from sibling rivalry to the adolescent drama of competing friendships and affections, to the battle for college admissions, to the give and take of workplace politics, family politics, church politics, and so on.
Knowing and following the rules is important to our survival. Operating within this economy of scarcity can be tricky.
In the modern world, every good thing must be earned, and it, too, is available in limited supply. People crave satisfaction and firmly believe that in order to get it you have to earn it. Consequently, when the bad comes along, it must mean we’ve earned that, too. And there seems to be no such limit on bad things.
There is a lament I often hear when tragedy, illness, or overwhelming challenges strike; you’ve probably heard it, too: “what did I do to deserve this?” It is not only a judgment we place on ourselves. I have counseled people deeply wounded by the assumptions of others, even people close to them, that when something bad happened, they must have done something to cause it.
A distressing example of this that we are all too familiar with is the propensity for public figures, including certain high profile Christians, to proclaim that a particular disaster, whether natural or manmade, is the result of God’s disfavor. By their reasoning, God’s anger over sinful behaviors or particular lifestyles have caused the calamity.
Since it is our determination that everything that occurs to us, good or bad, is just pay for our own actions, is therefore earned, so it is, that we approach this passage from Isaiah with suspicion and disbelief. It so firmly goes against human wisdom.
Ours is an age of reason, science, and markets. These influences are important in their place, but God’s wisdom is not found in materialism.[1] God’s wisdom speaks of something else. It doesn’t follow that laws of the physical world with which we are so familiar.
As we turn to the Old Testament text today, though the imagery might be beautiful doesn't the offer it contains seem too good to be true? “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Whenever I hear the opening words of this text it makes me think of old-time carnivals, and marketplaces. I envision the carnies and vendors, all lined up along the lane, each of them raising their voices, each crying over the other, each hawking their wares. “Hey you! Look over here! Come, see what I have for you - the finest of goods. The ones you really want. The ones you really need.” Each vendor is vying for your attention, and your dollars and coins. And it is in this scenario that we often confirm that old adage, “you get what you pay for” and learn that “what sounds too good to be true, usually is too good to be true. Cheap goods are often that – cheap goods – cheaply designed, cheaply made, cheap to buy, they functional cheaply as well.
But then, we read this text. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money come, buy and eat!” Written for a people conquered and then long exiled and struggling in Babylonia, these words and images speak deeply. They sound frivolous and impossible to believe, as they describe a meal beyond the reach of the Israelites for whom these claims are first made; they represent something that is beyond their expectation and beyond all hope.
And yet, the people are invited to come and eat that for which they have not worked, to be filled with things they cannot afford. They have no money. It doesn’t matter. They have no property. That’s okay. Their thirst will be quenched and their emptiness filled up with the finest of provisions, without cost to them.
But then the word of the Lord continues with imperatives and purpose: come, they are told; listen, they are commanded. Why? So that you may live.
Immediately we are told what God is up to here – God’s interest is in making an eternal covenant that is connected to God’s steadfast, sure love for David. That covenant is meant to be life-giving.
God will restore this people to glory. God will raise their status. It is up to Israel to remain close to the source of its glory and power and status. It is up to Israel to reorient their lives by turning to God, by listening to God, by allowing God’s word, character, and love to shape them. Only then will they truly live.
For those who would try to rationalize this message, to make it fit into human rationale and understanding, the words of the Lord explain: For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. In other words, “trust, believe in that for which there is no logical explanation. Because God provides in ways that are too great and lofty for human explanations or understanding.”
The distance dividing heaven and earth is compared to the distance between God’s plans and intentions and our human ability to understand them. God’s plans, power and potential cannot be understood; it can only be accepted. It can only be received; it cannot be earned by any product of human imagination or reason.
          This word of the Lord, delivered through the prophet is a word for us today.
          All week long we have worked and struggled, compromised and sought approval, earning our reputations, our paychecks, and our sense of well-being in a world of competition. All week long we have done what was necessary to buy what we need and to produce what was demanded of us, whether it was homework and test scores in school, meeting a deadline or quota at work, satisfying various demands in our relationships, or, writing a sermon!
          All week long we have struggled, functioning under the human economy of scarcity. There is never enough time to do everything on the “To Do” list; there is never enough money to supply all our needs and wants; we run out of energy before we can fulfill all the demands that fill our days; our hearts are worn out from trying to love enough, give enough, feel enough, to make ourselves and everyone else in our lives happy enough.
          And then God comes along with these liberating words; come, listen, turn, live.
          As a Lenten text, those liberating words are the ones God speaks to our aching, struggling, doubting hearts and souls.  As we examine our lives we know that we have wandered far from the streams of living water that God offers us. We sense that God’s command to come is nothing other than a life-giving instruction for repentance – for the radical reorientation of our lives that places God at the center of our lives, and allows us to truly live.
          It takes turning toward God and listening to God for the reshaping to begin, and yet we know deep down that even that turning, even that listening, is not something we can take on ourselves.
It is only by the working of God’s Spirit, a gift of God for the people of God, that this reorientation can begin. The Spirit is planted deep within us, and abides with us, that as we begin the radical reorientation which sets us on the road to follow God’s command and invitation, the resultant reshaping will allow us to be the disciples God calls us to be.
“In this world you get what you pay for?” In the kingdom of God, there is an abundance where our hunger is slaked and our thirst is quenched, where we receive grace for which we do not pay, and life without measure.
“You can’t get something for nothing?” While true, we are not the payees. The cost for filling our need has been paid for us through the eternal love of God and the cross of Jesus Christ.
Every so-called universal law that we can name and articulate, which is governed by our law of scarcity is ans

wered and conquered by God’s overarching law of abundance, wherein God’s love permeates our being and abides within us, answering our need, and filling us – filling us with good things.
May our repentance this Lent be a radical turning toward the God who shapes our hearts and lives to live abundantly knowing and trusting in the one who can satisfy our deepest longing.

[1] Darryl M. Trimiew, in his commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, p. 76.

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